Tag Archives: phone

Is MySpace really the future of email?

Am I getting old? Perhaps. I’ve been using email since 1992 when I first went to university so I just find it second nature now. It’s got to the point where I organise my whole life using it and I get quite frustrated when I actually have to call someone to get something done that could more easily be done asynchronously1. But that’s not how many people think according to ZDNet.co.uk.

The gist is that many people are now using websites such as Facebook and MySpace instead of email. In fact, they claim, teenagers only use email to talk to adults.

Is this the way of the future? Is it only old-age and inertia that’s stopping people like me from using MySpace exclusively?

I don’t think so. It’s not that I’m a Luddite. I do use instant messenger and I use my mobile phone more for text messaging than for voice calls, but there are a few issues that we need to work through first.

The first and most obvious is that of convenience. With email I can use one program (or check one website) to see all the messages that I am interested in reading. With FaceBook I have to check there, and then again on MySpace for my messages there and, finally, still my email just in case someone has mailed me directly or I have a notification from sites that don’t have internal messaging. That’s just a pain! History tells us that these closed systems do not last. Let’s have a look at a couple of examples.

Let’s look at email and how it evolved. In fact, it seems to have evolved in the same direction twice, first as technology allowed and second due to commercial “lock-in.” It started out as a way to communicate between users on a single machine. This doesn’t make much sense if you’re thinking about personal computers, but in the sixties and early seventies the concept of having your own machine just wasn’t a reality. As machines started to be linked together, so did the email systems. This wasn’t always easy as the different operating systems often had their own “standards” and some, such as Unix, often came with several incompatible implementations. After local networks were installed, people starting thinking globally and started plugging their networks together, creating the Internet2.

Many of the PC vendors that had not been involved in earlier eras and the bulletin boards that catered for them3 went straight for the second tier, a proprietary system barely capable of talking to the outside world.? There were a variety of reasons for this. It was by design — not wanting people to exchange messages without buying their software — or laziness but either way the result was the same. To a certain extent that’s where we are still in the Microsoft world. Exchange will talk to the rest of the SMTP world, albeit reluctantly and, even then, it’s not one hundred percent standards compliant4. Meanwhile, the rest of the world, even companies famous for shunning technologies Not Invented There, are using industry standards to communicate.

And if we then step forward to the last decade and the progress of instant messenger software we see the same thing in the process of happening. We start with completely separate islands, where I can talk to other people on, say, AIM but friends on MSN are off limits. I either have to push my “buddies” onto the same network or use applications like Adium so I can connect to multiple networks from the same software. And then a couple of years ago we saw the first signs of interoperability, with a pact between Yahoo and Microsoft. And, increasingly, we see the uptake of open standards like Jabber which is used as the foundation for Google Talk.

So, in the case of both IM and email we started with competing, incompatible technologies that eventually merged into one unified, interoperable version. Is that going to happen with FaceBook and MySpace? I’m not so sure. After all, we already have “messaging” applications outside these social networking sites. I see both as more of a layer on top of traditional email services, acting as an intermediary when communication is first initiated.

I’m not anti-social networking (I am a member on LinkedIn) but I am keen than we don’t take a step back into the “dark days” of the Internet when we had AOL and MSN competing to keep their users separate from the outside world. Walled gardens are not what the Internet is all about; this kind of system only benefits the companies that own the various properties. Let MySpace do the social bit, introducing people, but let the experts, the proven IM and email systems, keep the communication going.

  1. That’s to say, when I send an email you don’t have to be there to answer it. Unlike a phone call or an instant message where you do. []
  2. Okay, so I edited out a few details. I’m trying to show the general trajectory rather than every last twist in the story. []
  3. I’m including systems like AOL and Compuserve here. []
  4. Ever wondered what the winmail.dat files are when you open a message in an application other than Outlook? []

Windows Mobile 5 on Virgin Mobile UK

When I got my new phone, a HTC P4350, I quickly managed to make and receive phone calls and text messages. I even connected straight to the Internet over WiFi and (slowly) over GPRS. It never occured to me that sending a MMS, a picture message, would be so complicated.

With a “Pow!” and a “Zap!” I asked their technical support people and got the answer. It works in two parts, firstly the GPRS side, which you can find in the Connections tab of the Settings screen:

Virgin GPRS Settings

(In case you can’t read them, the important settings are “goto.virginmobile.uk”, “user” (no password) and 193.30.166.3.)

Once you can make a connection to Virgin you can configure the MMS side of things, which you can find in the “Options” menu of the Messaging application:

Virgin MMS Settings

(Again, important settings are: 193.30.166.1, “http://mms.virginmobile.co.uk:8002” and “WAP 1.2”.)

And that should do the trick. Happy Multimedia Messaging!

(With thanks to Plasq’s ComicLife for the over-the-top graphics.)

Follow-up: Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

Back in November I wrote about my then-new Belkin Wi-Fi Phone for Skype. At the time I was fairly pleased with the concept but less so with the actual implementation.

The phone’s hardware was fine. The unit as a whole was reasonably solid. The buttons were a bit wobbly and the screen was smaller than you might initially think, but there was nothing to complain about too much.

The software, however, was more problematic. The main issue we experienced was the unit drifting on- and off-line when it was left unattended. The only way of keeping the unit on-line all the time was to leave it plugged in. Not exactly optimal.

On trying to upgrade the firmware we found that the update software was packaged as a Windows executable, not ideal for this Macintosh-only home. Of course the idea is that the phone can be used without a computer, so it?s slightly comical that the system requirements to fix known bugs are so specific.

I tried reporting the bugs and asked for a solution from Belkin technical support. My first problem was that it wasn?t easy to negotiate their website. The Skype phone was so new that it was not possible to enter the SKU into their site, so I could raise a support call. After some time playing around I eventually found a way of doing it.

My effort was rewarded with… nothing. I got no reply at all. Maybe they were confused by the UK details as it turns out that I’d posted my question to the US technical support department. I still think it was rude to get no reply whatsoever.

I waited until January 2nd to resubmit the question. This time I was able to do so from the UK site and, fortunately, this time I got a response.

My experience with them has been mixed. In general the information given has been good. My message had clearly been read by a real person. Often I get replies asking me to do something I already tried, or something that it clearly not possible.1 But not with Belkin. And they offered to replace the phone without any quibbling.

I packaged the phone up and mailed it back to Belkin. I was quite impressed that they paid for the postage. Realising that our SkypeIn number was now unavailable when we didn’t have a computer switched on, I forwarded calls to our mobile numbers.2

I would also commend them on returning calls. Their call centre was always busy, but after five minutes on hold they’d always take my number and then actually call back. Sure, if would have been easier if I could get through to a real person straight away, but this approach was a pleasant surprise.

However what seems to have been lacking is communication. Responses often took over a week to arrive and sometimes not at all. In once instance I was told that the Customer Services department would be sending me the phone in a couple of days. They say this did happen but I recieved no notification and I ended up writing again a couple of weeks later when the phone failed to arrive. One advisor told me that the parcel had no tracking number. Another said that they couldn’t find my address.

So after all this effort what is the verdict? Does the replacement phone work?

It?s early days yet, but the answer seems to be a qualified “yes.” The phone operates correctly when under battery power. While it does seem to appear offline occasionally when viewed in another Skype window, calling my SkypeIn number from my mobile has, so far, usually resulted in the Belkin ringing. This is not 100% correct in my opinion, but is good enough for our use.

The other definite plus is the reduction in the annoying echo that pretty much every caller on the old phone mentioned. As before, the call sounds fine from the Skype phone. From the other end of the SkypeOut3 call, however, things are much improved. And, so far, we’ve not had any problems with the reliability. We?ve not experienced any dropped calls or crashes during a call. This is something I intend keeping a close eye on in the future.

The “qualified” comes from the things that still do not work correctly. For example, left unattended while we were at work yesterday, the phone somehow just got stuck at 15:50. This didn’t immediately arouse suspicion as it does tend to lose time very quickly. Pressing a button brought the otherwise blank screen to life giving the appearance of activity, but nothing actually worked. I had to restart it.

Of course one of the main reasons we sent it back was so that we could reliably run it on battery power. We might have to reconsider this now we know how long it lasts between charges. And the answer is: not long. It has needed charging every couple of days so far, and that’s without it being used for calls.

Overall the replacement phone is a great improvement over the original model. The call quality is improved and it is possible to operate it without mains power, which does mean that it does what it says on the box. Still, the glitches and the battery life stop me from unreservedly recommending the phone.

  1. My favourite is from a guy at a company that will remain nameless. He kept asking me to click the Start menu and select Internet Explorer. I explained that I had a Macintosh which had neither of those things. That would have been fine, except he was very insistent that I did, in fact, have a Start menu. And every computer had Internet Explorer. Clearly I was crazy. I eventually gave in, told him that I’d done as he asked and clicked Safari on my Dock. []
  2. I was a little hesitent to do this as I didn’t find much documentation on what to expect. Do both phones ring? What if one it switched off? What happens if we’re logged in on a computer, too? []
  3. One thing that works against the Belkin phone is not a problem with the device itself. In January Skype changed their call plans, requiring a “termination” charge for every call. In the case of many UK calls this will actually double the cost. This makes the case for switching away from having a landline less convincing than it was. []

Hiring

Talking about Google’s old and new hiring practices seems to be all the rage at the moment, so I thought that I would get in on the act.

I got through two phone interviews for a technical consultant role here in the UK before being rejected. My second interviewer told me that he’d had fourteen interviews before being hired. That’s just an absurd number. How much holiday and sick leave can you take at short notice without arousing suspicion?! (They were both long enough or required Internet access that I couldn’t do them at work.)

By the end of the second I was in two minds whether to take things any further anyway. I wanted to work for Google, but could I go through fourteen interviews? I was concerned about the money, as no number was on the job spec and big names often offer low and offer options to compensate. I can’t pay my mortgage with stock options! And the work in the consulting side didn’t sound quite as appealing as the kind of thing you hear on the development side.

Most significantly, was the style of interview. They asked brain-teasers, which I tend to think is a lousy way to scope out a candidate. Either you know the trick and can do it instantly, you get lucky or you need a hint. None of these really shows how smart you are, how well you can program a computer, interact with clients or, indeed, any other aspect of the job. The interviewer was also clearly typing away in the background while I was trying to answer the questions, only half listening, which was just plain rude.

Most communications were friendly and personal, right up to the last. The rejection email was signed, impersonally, “Google Staffing.”

So overall I’m not terribly impressed with Google recruitment. Okay, maybe I’m biased against them as they turned me down but as an interviewer I’ve always considered part of my job as leaving a positive impression of the company even with candidates that are not going to be hired. Google failed in this.

Review: Belkin Wi-Fi Phone

The problem is this. To get ADSL you need to have a BT phone line. Yet, except for calling my parents, I don’t really use a land-line phone. This has made using ADSL broadband more expensive than I’d have liked as I had to pay ?11 a month for a phone line I don’t make calls with1. Fast forward to last month, when I find that I can get cable broadband without phone or digital TV service.

Bingo! Bye-bye BT!

Except… my folks don’t have broadband and would kill me if they had to call me on my mobile. So we needed some way to allow them to call us, especially when we didn’t have a computer switched on.

I toyed with the idea of a SIP phone or a SIP adapter. This seemed a good solution as it’s a “standards compliant” VoIP system and, my thinking went, more likely to be future proof. I even got as far as ordering one on eBay but a dodgy seller put an end to that. Eventually I realised that I had never really had much success with SIP2 but had never had problems with Skype. I decided to give the Belkin WiFi phone a try.

The pictures look good. If you think of a modern, “candy bar” style mobile phone you’re along the right lines. First impressions of the real thing are positive too. The slightly rubberised plastic case feels solid — robust but not heavy — and nice to the touch. It’s simple to slide off the back cover and insert the battery.

It takes a little effort to push back the flap that covers the power socket but that’s probably a good thing. I charge it for four hours before realising that the “half full” battery icon on the display probably really means “charging.”

Powering the device on I find that the buttons, while looking the part, are slightly wobbly and let the rest of the phone down. The second slight disappointment is the screen, which is actually smaller than you first think it will be. Sure, it’s big enough but there’s plenty of space for a bigger one.

It’s necessary to pick your language (there was only one) and accept the Skype T’s and C’s before it tries to connect to a network. It’s pretty quick and immediately finds and tries to connect to an unsecured network. Not mine, of course, as I use “WPA Personal” security on mine.

It looks like it gets a connection but reports that it’s unable to connect to the Internet. I use the menus to try to select my local network. The interface should be familiar to anyone with a mobile phone. The little joy-stick and two menu buttons along with on-screen prompts are simple to follow, partly because it’s much less sophisticated than most contemporary phones. I find the network section, select my network and enter the password and we’re in. Pretty easy.

Next it says that my Skype password is wrong. Odd. I’ve not even entered a username yet! The “sign in” button just tries again and, despite looking, I don’t see anywhere to enter a new name.

I give up and decide to look in the manual.

It suggest that it should just be there under the sign-up menu and, strangely, it is now. Oh well, I enter my username and password. And that’s it. It quickly connects and downloads my contacts list. I see myself online using another account on my MacBook.

I fiddle about with the menus, playing with some of the ring tones. There are only a few but I find a half-decent “ringing” sound and confirm that the vibrate option is on.

Next I make a Skype-to-Skype call which sounds great at my end and is, reportedly, just like the user is on a PC from the other side.

Feeling emboldend I try a landline number. Again, from the handset it sounds pretty much as good as any other phone. It’s not quite so good for the recpient of the call, who complains of an annoying echo. Nevertheless it’s clear enough to be useable and we happily talk for fifteen minutes without any glitches.

In fact, once connected, the only glitch I’ve come across is not directly related to calls but is, potentially, a bit of a show-stopper. After the call I put the phone down and, like most mobile phones, after a short time the display goes into “screen saver” mode. Unlike my Sony Ericsson T630, which displays the time, the Belkin’s screen goes completely blank, leaving no indication that the phone is switched on at all.

That’s not the show-stopper, that’s just annoying.

But after ten minutes or so the phone appears off-line and making a call to it diverts straight to voice-mail. This makes it completely unsuitable as a home phone as any time someone calls we’re likely to be offline! The story so far is that I have sent an email to their technical support people and am waiting for a response.

Overall it has good hardware but disappointing software. I have no problems with “basic” — I hardly use any of the complex stuff on my mobile — but it’s difficult to unreservedly recommend a product that takes itself off the network all by itself. If, however, Belkin have a solution then I’d be pretty happy with it. It’s not cheap (but then none of its competitors are) but making free calls without switching on a PC is a compelling prospect.

  1. To put this into context, our bill for calls last quarter was 38p. []
  2. I’m thinking that maybe I’m cursed. I bought a Bluetooth headset that refused to work with the dongle I had for my iBook. At home I needed to open lots of ports but always got mediocre sound quality and, when trying to buy credit, I could never get an authorisation code. Clearly it was never meant to be. []

Nostalgia

I though I’d start the new year with an unusual, for me at least, positive message. The message: we’ve never had it so good technology-wise and often we forget that.

I started thinking about this when I realised what I was doing with my computer. Right now, for example, I am typing this into Emacs. In the back-ground I am scanning in some film and burning the previous scans onto CD. Only a few years ago any one of these activities would have been more than enough for a simple home computer. A joke at the time was that Emacs stood for “eight megabytes and continually swapping,” and now my iPod has thirty-two megs of memory as a convenience, basically to avoid letting the battery run down too quickly.

Even better, for the sake of clarity I’ve missed out the programs that I’m not actively using. Mail and Adium are happily keeping a look-out for new messages, iTunes is bashing out some good music. iCal is ready to tell me that I was supposed to be meeting a friend an hour ago, I left the Address Book open last time I looked up a phone number, I can’t even remember what I was editing in Word but that’s open too and Safari is primed, just in case.

But even that is a simplification. The disc image that’s being burned is on a different computer, they’re connected wirelessly and using a protocol that’s native to neither (Mac to Linux using SMB).

I don’t mention any of this to brag, or suggest that I’m doing anything odd or unusual here, quite the contrary. I just mean to point out that these are complex but every day activities that we expect not only to work, but to work seamlessly at the same time as lots of other stuff. And that, frankly, is absolutely amazing.